The Winter Solstice – The Shortest Day
The most popular of the ancient pagan celebrations was this, the birthday of the “Unconquered Sun”. An anniversary painlessly transferred in early Christian times to the birth of Christ, although biblical evidence suggests a date to the contrary.
Astronomically speaking, it is Midwinter. The Winter Solstice. On Friday, December 21, 2018 at 2:23 pm PST, the Sun will reach its lowest point up off the horizon, and from this day on until the June Solstice, it will only climb higher in our sky, bringing warmth and life to the Earth.
The Romans celebrated the Solstice on December 25th, and the preceding week was the Saturnalia, a raucous week of merrymaking, social reveling and debauchery. Try as they might, the Medieval Church never did get rid of all of the paganism attached to the holiday.
In Britain and Northern Europe, Christmas took on many of the customs of the ancient Germanic midwinter feast of Yule — wassailing, mumming, burning the Yule log, and bringing in the holly, ivy and mistletoe…. all magical plants bearing fruit in a dead season. (I’ll bet you had no idea that decorating with holly wasn’t something brought to us by Home & Garden Magazine). Wassail is from the Anglo-Saxon, Waes Heil, literally Be Whole! or Be Healthy!
The Christmas Carol
The essence of this old custom was to drink to mutual health from a mutual bowl of hot ale, apples, sugar and nutmeg. In the old days the bowl was carried through the village from house to house by the poor, who first sang at the door to gain entrance. Once inside, the owner of the house was expected to freshen the bowl with good ale, and drop coins in the palms of the wassailers. You can see where the Christian custom of caroling from door to door came from.
Mumming (from the Germanic mummen–a mask) was the enactment of a silent play in disguises, stemming from an even earlier belief in the midwinter visits of fertility spirits.
In 1377, King Richard II was visited by mummers who dined, played dice and danced with him, all apparently without uttering a word. One of the original reasons for the midwinter fires was, of course, to encourage the slowly returning Sun. Great bonfires were lit on every hill surrounding the villages. The lighting of fires or lights around this time of year is a tradition almost universal in the northern hemisphere. We still do it.
Like it or not, we are an atavistic species that celebrates light with light.